From St. Louis to Sutter’s Fort

Heinrich Lienhard

Heinrich Lienhard was one of the emigrants who made the trek across the continent to California in 1846, the same year as the Donner Party.  He and his four friends were called the “four German boys” by other travelers even though Heinrich was Swiss.   What set Heinrich apart from other emigrants is that he kept an extensive diary rivaled only by Edwin Bryant’s What I Saw in California.  Bryant happened to travel in 1846 as well.  Other diarists made much shorter observations about their travels. What is particularly interesting to those reading The Heirloom is that Heinrich and friends (as well as Edwin Bryant) went over Roller Pass on Donner Summit.

The group left St. Louis on a steamer for Independence, MO.  From Independence they embarked on their journey across the continent initially as part of a train of 26 wagons, enough to be protection against Indians.  His diary gives us a view of what it was like on the trail: order of travel, camping each night, daily travel, division of duties, arguments, interactions with Indians, buffalo hunting, adventures with Lucinda, guns, etc.  It also gives a view of things as places of note are visited: Ft. Laramie, Independence Rock, and Salt Lake Valley for example.

Because he kept a rather full diary rather than a simple log one gets a good feeling about traveling.  Leinhard reports each argument, naturally from his point of view, but in reading about those the reader gets an idea about how the exhaustion and difficulties of travel affected inter-personal relations.  The trip was not just about wagons, oxen, looking for water, watching for Indians, gathering food, etc.  It was also about human beings and their relationships made harder by the daily travel.  At the same time the litany of arguments gets a bit tiring as does the rendition of mundane details.   Skimming helps.

Interestingly, Leinhard’s party took the Hastings cutoff which he said was better named the “Hastings long trip.”  They ran into another party that had not taken the cutoff and had left Ft. Bridger “twelve or fourteen days later…” and had gotten just as far when Lienhard’s group finished with the cutoff.  The Donner Party, coming a bit later in the season also too the cutoff and rued the decision.

We, reading emigrant experiences, are amazed at the trials and tribulations and focus on them as we sit in our easy chairs.  But there was more to the journeys than desert crossings, sleeping on wet cold ground, and climbing mountains.   One passage is nicely evocative of the beauty of the valley around Salt Lake.  “The clear sky-blue surface of the lake, the warm, sunny atmosphere, the high mountains with the beautiful countryside at their base, through which were traveling on a fine road – al this put me in a very happy mood. All day long I felt like singing and whistling; and if there had been a single white family there, I believe I would have stayed. What a pity that the magnificent country was uninhabited.”

There are the trials and tribulations as well.  “Thus far, we had passed twenty-four wagons which had been left behind.  Now we stopped because all our oxen were apparently suffering. …They became hollow-eyed,  It was hard to see the animals suffer so.  We could not give them any more water because we had only a little left for ourselves, and they would hardly touch the grass we offered them.  But we couldn’t stay here.  We had to go on and the poor beasts had to drag the wagons along.  Soon we came upon some animals that had been left behind. Some were dead already, others were still moving their ears… all was arid without a sign of moisture…. Now we knew that we also had to cross the valley before we could reach water, that indispensable element.”  Then they reached a spring and a dog jumped in ecstatic with joy and began drinking.  Soon he began rolling around and died.   The spring was poison.  Travel was not so easy in those days.

Now comes the part people interested in Donner Summit history will like, “Crossing the Sierra Nevada” using Roller Pass.  Leinhard’s group got to the pass on October 3.  For comparison, the Donner Party began to arrive at Truckee Lake (Donner Lake) on October 31 according to Desperate Passage.

Lienhard’s first viewed the pass with astonishment.  It looked like several covered wagons were atop the trees.  They later discovered that the pass was so steep that what seemed impossible was an optical illusion.  They soon discovered that “we had traveled all kinds of bad road, but we began to believe the worst was yet to come, and in this we certainly were not mistaken.”

Since “no animal could climb up there” pulling a wagon, all of the oxen from the  wagon train in front of Lienhard’s were taken to the top and chained together.  The chain did not reach the bottom of the incline so trees were tied in.  Then ropes were attached to one wagon.  “The men took their places at either side of the wagon, then the twenty oxen above were made to start, and the wagon moved up the steep incline, with the men hardly being able to climb along.”

Here Lienhard digresses to the experiences of a party they’d overtaken at the Platte River, the Donner Party.  He recounted their misfortunes which ended with half the party at Donner Lake where, with provisions run out, “they boiled old leather and harness straps and ate them.” Lienhard had heard about the Donner Party travails at Sutter’s Fort and got some of the story wrong.  He said Mrs. Donner and Mr. Keseberg were the only survivors who did not go with rescuers.  That Mrs. Donner purportedly  had a lot of money was the reason rescuers worked their ways over the mountains to Donner Lake.   “When the men reached the camp of misery, they found only Keseberg alive, and he was very emaciated, pale, and weak.  One might ask how this man was able to stay alive through the long, cold winter.  The men found a number of buckets partly filled with segments and limbs of bodies of the dead including Mrs. Donner, …It was said that he even at the flesh of his own children, but this too unnatural to be credible.”  One cannot say that modern people have a monopoly on the…..   Lienhard then reports there were demands on Keseberg for Mrs. Donner’s money and that Keseberg was almost hung when he could not turn the money over.

Digression over, it was back to Roller Pass.  The wagons in Liehard’s party did not have enough chain and rope to do what the previous train had done.  They pulled the wagons to the steepest part and there used chains and the trees used before but before hauling the wagons up they carried the contents “up on our own shoulders… IT was necessary to climb with one’s load, because walking was out of the question.”  

“Since there was no grass or water at the summit, we had no time to lose in driving down to the next little valley.. The air was refreshing; the sky was clear; and just as the sun disappeared, we were driving down the mountain.  The clouds of dust blew into my eyes so that I could hardly see, and in addition we were driving very fast, almost at a trot.  …It seemed to me that were racing rather than driving.   …dusk suddenly came upon us,.. more dust…we continued down, down, down, as though an evil spirit was pursuing us…” and they stopped to camp.  The next day, the 5th of October, it began to snow.  The next night they camped at the other end of Summit Valley.

It took another two weeks to reach the Central Valley.  Four of the five boys then went off to p participate in the last phase of California’s fight for independence.  Lienhard then went back to Sutter’s Fort and worked for Sutter.  In 1849 he want to Switzerland and brought back Sutter’s family.  He did not go by wagon however. He went by ship.  In 1850 he took his California earning and went back to Switzerland where he bought an estate and married a local girl.  America still called though and took his family to Illinois in 1856.  There he died in 1903.